By Rabbi Avrohom Sebrow
“Then you shall again discern between the righteous and the wicked, between one who serves G‑d and one who does not serve Him” (Malachi 3:18). The Gemara in Chagigah (9b) raises the following point: The verse seems to make two separate distinctions: Between the righteous and the wicked, and between one who serves Hashem and one who does not. Yet aren’t they really two ways of expressing the same idea?
The Gemara explains that both the one who serves Hashem and the one who doesn’t are purely righteous individuals. The one who serves Hashem reviews his learning 101 times, and the one who doesn’t serve Hashem is conferred that moniker for reviewing his learning only 100 times. Apparently, the Gemara is establishing that the optimal number of times to review the same piece of Torah learning is 101.
Rav Itzele Peterburger explains that obviously this individual referred to in the pasuk was capable of reviewing his learning 101 times but chose not to. Therefore he is given this derogatory title of “one who does not serve Hashem.”
Yet the title seems rather harsh. After all, this righteous person reviewed the Torah subject 100 times. He was only lacking one additional review. Why should he be referred to as someone “who doesn’t serve Hashem”?
Rav Itzele answers that sincere Torah study brings a deep sense of joy to the soul. The level of satisfaction one has while learning is indicative of his application. How could anyone who thoroughly enjoyed his learning and the first 100 reviews forsake the final review? If he could make a conscious decision to skip the final review, it must be that there was something lacking in his study during all the previous times. He wasn’t learning with the proper concentration and focus that should have resulted in his Torah study being a euphoric experience. Hence, the harsh moniker of “not serving Hashem” is applicable, because in essence he was not serving Hashem properly during the first periods of learning.
The Chofetz Chaim has an altogether different approach to answer the above question. He suggests that while it is true that the righteous individual is lacking only one review, it has the significance of being the final one. The Gemara suggests that 101 is the optimum number of times to review a subject. This individual is more than 99% of the way there! Why did he stop early? If someone is capable of completing a mitzvah yet leaves it unfinished, he deserves the moniker of “not serving Hashem.” Would anyone suggest that a smartphone that is only lacking one wire is acceptable? It’s 99% complete! But until it is finished, it’s not a functional product. The Chofetz Chaim likewise felt that 99% of a mitzvah and 100% are worlds apart.
A third approach was offered by Rav Avrohom Kalmanowitz, zt’l. It can be suggested that this individual forsook the last review because he failed to recognize its significance. He reasoned that it’s only one time out of 101. What difference does it make if he learns it or not? Yet this cavalier attitude towards avodas Hashem demonstrates there is something fundamentally lacking in his entire attitude. How can one consider even the tiniest part of avodas Hashem insignificant? If someone truly appreciated avodas Hashem, then his attitude would be to view every mitzvah opportunity as a precious gem.
The realization that even the smallest part of avodas Hashem is immensely significant can help us overcome the yetzer ha’ra as we approach the Yamim Nora’im. The yetzer ha’ra may say, “Even if you change, can you really change that much? So you didn’t do an aveirah one time, what about the countless other times?” The answer to this is that even the smallest improvement in avodas Hashem is precious and must be treasured.
Rabbi Avrohom Sebrow leads a daf yomi chaburah at Eitz Chayim of Dogwood Park in West Hempstead and is a rebbi at Mesivta Kesser Yisroel of Willowbrook. He can be contacted at ASebrow@gmail.com.